FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – The Sierra Leone Chapter of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) hosted a daylong symposium in June 2012 aimed at advancing cross-government dialogue and cooperation for historic elections scheduled to take place in November.
Participants said many of the issues discussed are relevant to elections across Africa. The upcoming election in Sierra Leone is important enough that Africa Center chapter leaders were featured on nationwide radio and television and were invited to meet with President Ernest Bai Koroma, who said the ACSS chapter symposium was timely because the upcoming elections understandably represent the main focus of the nation’s security for the immediate future. In addition, Koroma emphasized that Sierra Leone cannot achieve security in isolation but also must be concerned with the stability and security of neighbors and regional partners.
“In many countries across Africa, the right to vote and to be elected is now widely accepted as a fundamental human and constitutional right,” said retired Ambassador Joe C. Blell, president of the Sierra Leone Chapter. “State authorities therefore have the responsibility to set the conditions for credible election processes,” Blell said in opening remarks at the June 11 symposium, which was titled “State of Preparedness with the Security Sector: Working Towards Free, Fair, and Credible Elections.”
The symposium included three Africa Center academic and outreach staff members from the United States and brought together approximately 50 representatives from across Sierra Leone’s government and civil society. They discussed the role the West African nation’s security sector will play in support of presidential parliamentary, district, and city elections. The U.S. Embassy in Freetown co-sponsored the meeting, which was attended by members of parliament, representatives of several national political parties, and by Minister of Defense and National Security Alfred Palo Conteh. Also attending were U.S. Ambassador Michael S. Owen, as well as representatives from the United Nations police, the European Union, and the Embassies of China and the United Kingdom. Opening remarks by several speakers were covered by the media. Follow-on presentations and discussions were conducted under the Africa Center’s strict policy of non-attribution.
“With elections only about six months away, the most pressing immediate security concern is for Sierra Leone … to maintain this environment that will allow you to conduct free, fair, transparent, and violence-free elections,” Owen, the U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone, said in opening remarks at the symposium.
The Washington, D.C.,-based Africa Center conducts academic seminars and idea-sharing programs in the United States, in African nations, and in Europe, with the goal of helping to identify and resolve security challenges in ways that promote civil-military cooperation, respect for democratic values, and safeguard human rights. Thousands of security sector professionals and other African leaders have attended ACSS courses since the Center was founded in 1999. The Africa Center has alumni community chapters in 29 nations, and the Sierra Leone Chapter was founded in August 2011 with assistance from the U.S. Embassy.
“The ACSS alumni chapter for Sierra Leone is, I think, a very concrete, tangible example of the spirit of true friendship that exists between our two countries,” said Owen, the U.S. ambassador. “And it’s also a symbol of our shared commitment to building a more secure future for both Sierra Leone and the United States.”
Professor Sidi T.O. Alghali, of the University of Sierra Leone, said the June symposium would be one of several meetings before the November elections, with the goal of helping Sierra Leone work toward long-term political stability and development.
“The outcome of this gathering, and subsequent consultations,” he said, “envisions a safe, well-secure, politically tolerant country with a buoyant economy, well-managed resources, capacitated functional national institutions, and free, fair, and responsible press, and an equitable distribution of national wealth.”
Alghali said that threats to the elections and political stability “range from corruption to youth unemployment, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, illiteracy, piracy, national and trans-national crimes, regional divides, poverty, money laundering, drug trafficking, environmental degradation, deforestation, terrorism, [and] water shortage,” as well as poor garbage management and shortcomings in educational institutions.
Along with media coverage of the opening sessions, the symposium discussions were attended by numerous representatives of civil society.
Mustapha K. Dumbuya, national security coordinator for Sierra Leone and a retired brigadier, said it was necessary for media and independent civil groups to be deeply involved in the election process.
“These stakeholders include those that help to disseminate vital information about the electioneering process, those that monitor the entire process in order to ensure transparency, those that will provide the enabling environment for a credible and peaceful conduct of the process,” Dumbuya told participants. “Thus, the security and justice sectors, the media, civil society groups, and our development partners are key to the success of the electoral process.”
Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war ended in 2002 and was characterized by tens of thousands of deaths and widespread atrocities. The United Nations withdrew peacekeepers in 2005, and the first post-conflict elections took place in August 2007, according to U.S. Department of State Country Background Notes on Sierra Leone.
“The outcome of the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections manifested the resolve of Sierra Leoneans to put the past behind and get back on sound democratic processes that will offer the platform for sustainable development,” Dumbuya said. “The elections were internationally proclaimed to be free and fair, and also conducted in a safe and secure environment provided by the Sierra Leonean security sector.”
Numerous Sierra Leone officials said this year’s elections are expected to be more complex than the 2007 elections. Dumbuya said extensive planning was needed between government sectors and with civil society “In order to consolidate the gains that have been made in strengthening democracy and fostering peace and development.”
The symposium was part of the Africa Center’s Topical Outreach Program Series, or TOPS, which allows the Washington, D.C.,-based Africa Center to maintain an active network of relationships with alumni community groups in nations across Africa. Typically, a small academic and outreach team visits nations with active ACSS communities once every one to two years to participate in workshops and symposiums. The symposiums are organized by the local community groups.
In addition to the daylong symposium, the Sierra Leone Chapter conducted a one-day consultative session for an upcoming Africa Center Security Sector Reform workshop, scheduled for October in Dakar, Senegal. The consultative session, attended by more than a dozen officials, solicited input in designing the regional workshop.
“Our partners in Sierra Leone provided an excellent set of recommendations for the West Africa Workshop on Security Sector Reform,” said Professor Thomas Dempsey, the Africa Center’s Chair for Security Studies, who participated in both the election symposium and the Security Sector Reform (SSR) workshop. “The lessons learned from Sierra Leone’s post-conflict SSR program can benefit the entire region, and I anticipate that the participants from Freetown will make invaluable contributions to the October event.”
Article by Vince Crawley, deputy director for communications and community affairs at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Additional photos from the Africa Center symposium and consultative session are posted on Flickr. View Photos From the Event.